Visit Svaneti region: the best Itinerary through Mestia and Ushguli
A complete travel guide to visit the Svaneti region in Georgia
Located in the northwest of Georgia, Svaneti is one of the most breathtaking and moutainous region in the country. With its magnificent mountain ranges, medieval watchtowers, and traditional Svan villages, Svaneti offers a unique experience for travelers seeking adventure and nature. Whether you’re traveling by van, 4×4, motorbike, or bicycle, we’ve got the perfect itinerary for you. Our 4-day loop itinerary takes you through the picturesque villages of Mestia and Ushguli, where you’ll witness the region’s iconic watchtowers and learn about the Svan culture. Embark on heart-pumping hikes to Koruldi lakes and Shkara Glacier, and drive the scenic route to the rugged Zagari Pass, lined with towering peaks and breathtaking vistas.
In this article, we give you some precious tips and practical information to organize your road trip in Svaneti.
Why you should visit Svaneti region?
Surrounded by Georgia’s highest peaks, Svaneti has spectacular mountain scenery. The slopes of its deep valleys are covered with thick forests and alpine meadows. The highest peak in Georgia, Mount Shkhara, stands at 5,201 m. Also in this region is Mount Ushba (4,710 m), which overlooks Mestia, the region’s capital. Svaneti is home to the Svans, a Georgian mountain people who speak their own language and have a very strong cultural identity. The imposing watchtowers which dominate the landscape have come to symbolise the region. During the Middle Ages, each family had its own defensive tower to protect them against invaders from beyond their borders and attacks resulting from family vendettas. Long cut off from the outside world, Svaneti can now be accessed all year round thanks to a surfaced road that connects Zugdidi with Mestia. A lot of work has been done over the past ten years to develop tourism (ski resorts, roads, tourism infrastructure, etc.). Some villages, such as Ushguli, have retained their charm and authenticity. In addition, this province has no shortage of wild expanses and hiking trails where the only people you will come across are a handful of shepherds 🙂
Things to know before you visit Svaneti
A brief historical overview of Svaneti
With its abundance of mineral resources such as gold and copper, Svaneti contributed for many years to the wealth of the Kingdom of Colchis, all the while attracting the attention of the greatest empires of the ancient world. Its traditional gold extraction techniques are linked to the Greek myth of the Golden Fleece. Surrounded by towering peaks, Svan people faced isolation in winter and relied on animal herding and forest resources. Despite being part of the Kingdom of Georgia, Svaneti maintained autonomy and flourished culturally under Queen Tamar. The need to defend their territory against invaders, as well as the violent vendettas that pitted families and clans against each other, influenced over time the shape of the buildings built by the Svans. Svaneti is famous for its tall stone defensive towers built between the 9th and 12th centuries. Russian control was limited, and local noble families held power. Natural disasters and the collapse of the USSR brought hardship, but peace was restored in 2004. The completion of the Zugdidi-Mestia road in 2011 boosted tourism, offering opportunities for economic improvement. Many families returned to the region, seeking a better life.
When is the best time to visit Svaneti?
Well, the answer depends on what type of traveler you are, but let me tell you, any season is a good time to explore this beautiful corner of the world! Winter is perfect for those seeking a skiing adventure, with plenty of snow-capped slopes and cozy ski resorts. Spring is outstanding for those who love hiking, as the wildflowers start to bloom and the temperatures are mild.
The summer months from about June to early September are the warmest and most popular time to visit Svaneti. Summer is probably the best option if you want to drive beyond Mestia (Ushguli, Zagari Pass, Latpari Pass). You should know that the road to Mestia is open all year round. However, Ushguli is completely cut off in winter. The road to Ushguli and Zagari Pass are open between June and October, depending on the year and snow conditions.
Autumn is also a fantastic time to witness the mesmerizing fall foliage and attend various cultural festivals that take place during the season.
How many days should i spend in Svaneti?
We highly recommend spending at least 3-4 days in the region. This will give you enough time to explore the mountainous landscape, hike through the stunning valleys and see the various landmarks and cultural sites that Svaneti has to offer. Moreover, spending a night or two in a local guesthouse will allow you to experience the Svan hospitality and culture.
Where to eat and stay in Svaneti?
When it comes to dining and accommodation options in Svaneti, there are plenty of choices to suit different preferences and budgets. For those who love the outdoors, wild camping is always an option, but be sure to find a spot away from the houses and practice Leave No Trace principles. Guesthouses in Svaneti are usually family-run, offering home-cooked meals and a chance to interact with locals. In fact, spending a night in Ushguli, a picturesque UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a must-do experience in Svaneti. Here, you can stay in traditional stone houses and enjoy stunning mountain views. Many guesthouses can also offer guided tours and activities, such as hiking and horseback riding.
Svan must-try traditional dishes
In Svaneti, there are several local dishes that you should definitely try. Svan cuisine is renowned for its hearty, lush dishes, perfect for cold winters. Here are just a few of the dishes not to be missed:
- Svanetian Salt: Not exactly a dish, but a crucial part of Svanetian cuisine. This unique local blend of spices and salt adds instant flavor to every dish.
- Kubdari (Meat Bread): A meat-stuffed bread filled with chopped beef, Svanetian salt, onions, garlic, and optional chili pepper for spice. It is baked until crispy and delicious.
- Tashmijabi (Cheesy Potatoes): Mashed potatoes mixed with local cheese, typically Svanetian or Georgian sulguni, creating a stretchy and tasty dough.
- Fetvraal (Svanetian Khachapuri): A variation of the famous Georgian dish, khachapuri. Fetvraal uses a specific mountain cheese blended with Svaneti Millet Flour, which is green and unique to the region.
- Svan Chvishtari (Cheesy Millet Breads): A lighter version of the traditional Georgian Chvishtari, made with local green millet flour and cheese.
- Mountain Honey: Svaneti produces its own distinct honey from local wildflowers, which can be purchased directly from roadside beekeepers.
- Kartoplaar (Potato & Cheese Khachapuri): A variation of khachapuri with a filling of potato and local cheese.
- Mushroom Kubdari: A vegetarian option, similar to Kubdari but with mushrooms instead of beef, often available upon request.
Get to Mestia by public transport : marshrutka or shared taxis
From Zugdidi, you can take a marshrutka to Mestia. The fare is approximately 40 GEL and travel time to Mestia is around 4 hours.
Shared taxis are also available from Zugdidi. Expect to pay approximately 45-50 GEL per seat for a shared taxi, or 180-200 GEL for the whole car. Travel time is slightly faster, around 3-3.5 hours.
If you come from Tbilisi, note that there is a overnight train to Zugdidi!
Our 4 day loop itinerary around Mestia and Ushguli in Svaneti
The following points are highlights of a 4 to 5 day itinerary from Zugdidi to Lentekhi trough Mestia and Ushguli. From Mestia, a 4×4, a trail-type motorbike or a mountain bike is recommended. For details of this itinerary, see Routes 19, 20, 21 and 22 of our Explore Georgia guidebook. We have compiled the best of Svaneti on high resolution satellite maps with all the camping spots and viewpoints. You’ll also find historical information on the Svan culture, and explanations of the region’s landscapes, fauna and flora. For those who prefer, we provide GPS tracks and a foldable tourist map of the country.
Driving the Svaneti highway: Zugdidi-Mestia
Long cut off from the outside world, Svaneti can now be accessed all year round thanks to a surfaced road that connects Zugdidi with Mestia. Known as the Svaneti Highway, the road between Zugdidi and Mestia offers a scenic journey through the beautiful mountains of the Greater Caucasus. The condition of the road can vary depending on weather conditions and maintenance work. Some portions of the road may have potholes or rough patches, particularly in the off-season or after heavy rainfall but overall, it is a well-maintained road. From Zugdidi, the journey usually takes around 3 to 4 hours, covering a distance of approximately 140 kilometers (87 miles). It may be longer if you make stops at the numerous viewpoints along the way 🙂 Most tourists make a stop at the Enguri Dam. From Kutaisi, the drive takes at least 4 hours.
Visiting Mestia’s iconic watchtowers
Nestled into the heart of the snowcapped peaks of the Greater Caucasus, the town of Mestia is notable for its impressive defensive towers, which are typical of Svaneti. This medieval village is the administrative and economic centre of the region. Accessible year-round from Zugdidi, it is an excellent base camp for exploring the region. You will find many restaurants, hostels and tour operators for all kinds of mountain-based activities. Make sure you visit one of the town’s three museums, each of which presents a very interesting picture of the Svans’ history and cultural identity: Mikhail Khergiani House-Museum, Margiani’s House Museum and the superb Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography. With its two ski resorts, this town also attracts many tourists in the winter.
Hiking to Koruldi lakes
Starting in Mestia, this short route, 28 km long (round trip), is an opportunity to gain some height and enjoy an extraordinary panoramic view of the snowcapped peaks of the Greater Caucasus. The route gradually rises above the deep valley of Mestia through fir and spruce forests to the top of Tshakazagari Mountain, where many paragliders take off. It then rises to a little plateau at an elevation of 2,740 m, where you will find the Koruldi Lakes, surrounded by meadows. The views are already impressive from here, but they are even more beautiful from the Koruldi ridge, which you can get to on foot. From there, you will see the vertiginous slopes of Mount Ushba (4,710 m) and its thousand-year-old glaciers nestled into the mountains. This is a fairly popular route, so you will almost certainly have company. We recommend that you set up camp next to the lakes to watch the sunrise and sunset and also to be alone.
If you want to rent a 4×4 equipped with camping gear to explore Svaneti, we have listed the best rental agencies in Georgia in this article. Find our selection of the most reliable agencies in Tbilisi and Kutaisi.
Visiting Ushguli, the most beautiful village in Svaneti
The little medieval village of Ushguli, which sits at an elevation of 2,100 m, is without a doubt the most beautiful village in Svaneti. Its beauty comes from both its impressive thousand-year-old defensive towers and its views of the snowcapped peaks of Mount Shkhara (5,193 m). The greatest empires of the ancient world fought over this territory, but the bravery of its warrior people, its isolation and its extreme climate allowed this village to survive throughout the course of the last few centuries. Nicknamed “fearless heart”, Ushguli is one of the best-preserved examples of defensive Svan architecture. After following the turbulent waters of the Enguri River upstream through a narrow canyon, a dirt road climbs up to the middle of a misty, wild valley. The first stone towers stand like imperturbable guards, then the village appears, with Georgia’s highest peak in the background. In dry weather, the route leading to Ushguli is not particularly difficult, but it can quickly deteriorate (mud, rockslides) in bad weather. A 4×4 is recommended.
Take time to explore the narrow, winding streets of the village, before embarking on the last part of the route leading to the foot of Shkhara Glacier. The best preserved and most picturesque part of Ushguli is Chazhashi, which is located at the confluence of the Enguri and Shavtskala Rivers. We recommend that you climb the hill overlooking it, where you will find Queen Tamar’s tower. The view of the village is beautiful. Make sure to visit the Lamaria church and the ethnographic museum.
Hiking to Shkhara glacier
A dirt track leads to the foot of the northern face of the highest peak in Georgia, Mount Shkhara (5,193 m). If the weather is clear, you will be able to see the mountain’s jagged ridges and the glacier from the track. This route (16 km round trip) follows the Enguri River through vast meadows lined with forests. You will have to cross a few streams. In wet weather, however, the track can quickly become difficult because of the mud. At the end of this route, a little café welcomes tourists in the summer, especially hikers, who frequently climb up to the glacier. We recommend that you park here and continue on foot. The round trip to the glacier and back should take about an hour and a half. If you start hiking from Ushguli, it takes about five hours to hike to the glacier and return.
We would definitely recommend staying overnight in Ushguli and spending some time interacting with the locals and learning about their culture and way of life. They are very hospitable and welcoming, and it’s a great opportunity to support local communities. In the evening, you can take a stroll around the village, visit the old watchtowers, or simply enjoy the quietness of the night. As the night falls and the stars light up the sky, you’ll realize why Ushguli is considered one of the most beautiful places in Georgia.
Crossing Zagari Pass
Zagari Pass (2,620 m) allows you to leave (or get to) the village of Ushguli on the eastern side via a relatively well-maintained, level-2 track (see Route 21 our book Explore Georgia). Apart from a monastery and a few shepherd encampments, you will not see any houses on the 20 km stretch between Ushguli and Tsana. Starting in Ushguli, the road climbs slowly through vast meadows before dropping into the Koruldashi Valley and reaching the village of Tsana. From Zagari Pass, the views of the jagged ridges on either side of the summits of Ailama (4,547 m) and Tsurungali (4,250 m) are stunning. In dry weather, the dirt and gravel road is not particularly challenging. But it can rapidly deteriorates and a 4×4 is mandatory. It is only open from the end of June to October, depending on the snow cover. Beyond Tsana, the road is under construction all the way to Mele and has both tarmacked and dirt sections.
Climb high and explore the universe of ice and rock that secretly dominates the deep valleys of Svaneti. This demanding, winding route crosses the Svaneti Range, which separates the regions of Upper and Lower Svaneti, via Latpari Pass (2,834 m). The route offers magnificent views of the highest peaks in the country, most notably Mount Tetnuldi (4,858 m). If the weather is clear, you will even be able to see Mount Elbrus, which is the highest peak in Europe no less, at 5,621 m. Be warned, however, this scenery comes at a price! This route is classified as level 4 because of its hairpin bends and steep climbs. Be prepared to climb 1,200 m over 9 km on the northern slope and to rapidly descend 1,900 m over 13 km on the southern slope. You will need to have a powerful 4×4, a light motorcycle or be in good physical shape to haul yourself up to the top of Latpari Pass. Find more details about this itinerary (route 22) in our guide Explore Georgia.
Is the Zagari pass open? Is the road to Ushguli passable? Can I take my campervan there? We answer all these questions live in our Overland Georgia Facebook group. To chat with other travellers and share your best photos of Svaneti, join our discussion group!
Hiking in Svaneti: top hikes around Mestia
Hike to Chalaadi Glacier
The hike to the tip of Chalaadi Glacier is easy. The trail, which climbs from 1,400 m to 1,800 m, gives you views of the gorgeous high mountain landscapes of Svaneti. The climb will take about 45 minutes starting from the wooden bridge, where you can easily park. The trail first crosses through a lovely forest, then runs alongside a stream to the glacier. Do not get too close to the glacier, as there may be crevasses and rockslides. This trail is very busy in July and August.
Hike to Ushba Glacier
There is a magnificent moderate/difficult hiking trail to the famous Ushba Glacier at an elevation of 2,200 m. This route will lead you through gorgeous landscapes of meadows, forests, rocks and ice. The hike is roughly 10 km with 800 m of elevation gain (round trip) starting from the Hiker’s Café, which is close to a nice wild camping spot. The trail climbs gently until you reach Shdugra Waterfall, where it becomes steeper, and it remains quite precipitous all the way to the tip of the glacier. Red and white blazes mark the trail. Beyond the waterfall, a border permit is required. This permit is free and must be requested at the Mestia Tourism Information Centre or the Mestia Police Station. It might be checked at the military checkpoint. Do not get too close to the glacier, as there is some danger of crevasses and rockslides.
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